What Kanye’s Graduation Taught the Music Industry

 
 

A decade on from Kanye’s Graduation, Cian Montague looks back at the great album and how it succeeded. 

 

Kanye West’s Graduation has recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of its release. It was his third studio album and the final part of his education-themed trilogy, following The College Dropout and Late Registration. Graduation is not Kanye’s finest album. Although boasting great tracks such as ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ and ‘Flashing Lights’, it also contains clangers like ‘Drunk and Hot Girls’. However, it is arguably his most influential piece of work. Its release would prove to be a watershed in hip-hop.

Graduation represented a monumental shift in rap culture. Under intense media scrutiny, a sales contest developed with 50 Cent’s Curtis, which was released the same day, 11 September 2007. Recognising the potential for increased numbers, both artists were happy to stoke the fire and encourage the rivalry. 50 Cent went so far as to say that he would retire as a solo artist if Kanye’s album outsold his.

Hip-hop in the 2000s had been, to this point, dominated by the gangsta rap of 50 Cent and G-Unit, as well as by Eminem, whose rhymes never strayed too far from the violent. Kanye’s first two records had both performed extremely well, but in 2007, 50 Cent was arguably the biggest rapper in the game, with two of the decade’s best-selling albums already under his belt. He was a titan in the industry, an unassailable figure, and this image was certainly aided by his imposing physical stature. This was a man, after all, who had been shot nine times and lived to brag about it.

The result would surprise many: in the end, it wasn’t even close. Buoyed by the popularity of singles ‘Good Life’ and ‘Stronger’, Graduation sold 957,000 copies to Curtis’ 691,000. The public had proved receptive to Kanye’s softer style. They were ready for a changing of the guard.

Kanye never tried to present himself as a tough guy, and his lyrics touched on personal themes such as self-doubt and self-motivation, the impacts of fame, and relationships.

50 Cent’s hyper-masculine raps about drugs and guns could not have been further from the music of Graduation. Kanye never tried to present himself as a tough guy, and his lyrics touched on personal themes such as self-doubt and self-motivation, the impacts of fame, and relationships. He included ‘Big Brother’, a touching ode to his mentors No I.D. and Jay-Z. He even had Coldplay’s Chris Martin sing the hook on ‘Homecoming’. This was the antithesis of gangsta rap, and moreover its successor.

The post-Graduation climate saw the birth of an entire generation of new stars, including probably the biggest name in hip-hop today. Just six weeks after its release, a 20-year-old up-and-comer Drake included a freestyle over ‘Barry Bonds’ on his Comeback Season mixtape. In 2008, encouraged by Graduation’s success, Kanye released the polarising 808s & Heartbreak. Over eerie, melancholic electronic beats, he embraced Auto-Tune and largely abandoned rapping in favour of singing.

Together with Graduation, this work provided a template for future hip-hop stars who weren’t afraid to look inwards. Kanye’s influence was all over Drake’s breakout project So Far Gone. Drake has built a career on his reputation as a sensitive rapper and crooner, unafraid to get introspective. Tellingly, this mixtape also featured Drake rapping over a Kanye beat; this time ‘Say You Will’, 808s’ gut-wrenching opener.

Several nascent stars also adopted trends set by Graduation. J. Cole, a rapper with more to say about relationships and family problems than the streets, similarly took thematic cues from Graduation and its follow-up. In addition, he directly borrowed lyrics from ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ on two occasions in 2009 and 2010, and his 2011 track ‘Rise and Shine’ included a reverential nod to ‘Good Life’.

Kanye’s protégé, Kid Cudi, an artist who deals with loneliness and mental health in a far more open manner than most of his contemporaries, also found his niche in the wake of Graduation. While no longer a star to the same degree as Drake or Cole, the massive success of his first two Man on the Moon albums in 2009 and 2010, and the popularity of songs like ‘Day ‘n’ Nite’, should not be forgotten.

Graduation’s influence can be seen in many others who rose to fame in the years following its release, including Lupe Fiasco, Childish Gambino, and arguably even the Weeknd.

Graduation’s influence can be seen in many others who rose to fame in the years following its release, including Lupe Fiasco, Childish Gambino, and arguably even the Weeknd. Chance the Rapper is a much-heralded example of a more recent Kanye disciple, but even artists like Kendrick Lamar, who draw less obviously from Kanye’s music, have benefitted from the post-Graduation willingness to emote. It is certainly hard to imagine ‘Poetic Justice’ from Good Kid m.A.A.d City, ‘u’ or ‘i’ from To Pimp a Butterfly, or ‘FEEL’ from DAMN being written if 50 Cent’s gangsta rap had remained in the ascendancy.

With Graduation, Kanye West toppled a giant, and established a new era. In the decade since, consciousness and personal reflection have been in fashion, largely to the detriment of gangsta rap. Themes of drugs and guns never completely vanished, and are perhaps now on the rise, but they have lost the dominance they once enjoyed. This attests to Graduation’s status as one of the most influential releases in modern music.

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